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How to Heal From a Damaging Relationship With a Narcissist

Relationships with narcissists can be destructive and costly.

  • Identifying how narcissistic manipulation works and letting go of illusions can help a person move on.

  • Healing comes from grieving past losses and embracing healthy discernment.


Romantic relationships with narcissists can bring confusion, betrayal, and heartbreak.

By “narcissist,” I mean individuals who meet the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder or who display numerous narcissistic personality traits.

Research on partners of narcissists has found that many partners experience increased levels of anxiety, depression, and dependency, both during and after the relationship.

This may be correlated with narcissists’ lack of empathy and sense of entitlement. Narcissists use others for their own needs, disguising their intentions through gaslighting and projection and seeking to shift the balance of power toward themselves.

As a result, partners of narcissists can feel one-down, insecure, or unworthy. The pain from a narcissistic relationship can linger well after the breakup and make forming new relationships anxiety-ridden.

If you have suffered heartbreak from a narcissistic relationship, you can heal. In my clinical experience with clients who’ve been wounded or betrayed by narcissists, I’ve noticed five steps in the transition from heartbreak to healing. These steps aren't necessarily sequential.

1. Demystification

The first step to recovering a healthy sense of self is to identify how narcissistic control and abuse happened to you.

Narcissists have a predictable playbook of drawing someone into romance only to eventually demote, demean, and discard them. You may be able to see this more clearly after the fact.

To demystify your experience: Do a relationship timeline.

Recall how your ex may have initially swept you off your feet or made you feel special. Then, recall how and when the wooing stopped.

Remember times your partner put you down or put their needs first. Recall your first doubts or red flags. Recall how your partner may have distracted, minimized, or stonewalled if you voiced concerns. Write out your timeline or recount it to a trusted friend or therapist.

2. Disillusionment

You may try to see the good in everyone. However, many narcissists can’t help but hurt and take advantage of others. Overlooking this reality leaves you vulnerable to narcissistic abuse.

Narcissists have radically different notions and values than most of us. Narcissists seek to win and dominate rather than cooperate or respect.

It can initially be difficult to let go of idealizations or fantasies about a narcissistic partner. It may hurt to recognize that the partner who professed to love you may have used and betrayed you or that a person you thought adored you never wanted to know you on a deep level.

To let go of illusions about your partner and the relationship: List what you disliked.

Tally everything you didn’t like about your former partner and the relationship. Write what hurt, what was unhealthy, and what you sacrificed. Keep it handy, or put it on your phone. Refer to it if you find yourself romanticizing the lost relationship.

As you let go of illusions or fantasies—which your partner tried to foster—you can hold a more balanced, realistic view.

3. Decoupling

Grieving lost love is hard. But sitting with loss from a place of mindfulness and self-compassion allows you to grieve and move on more completely.

To detach from your ex: List all your feelings.

Tune in to your emotions about your ex. You may feel sorrow, guilt, anger, shame, or feelings of failure or hurt. You may also feel longing, loneliness, or fear of never finding another love.

None of these feelings are wrong. Guilt, anger, shame, and hurt can signify an unhealthy connection. Love can be difficult, but it shouldn’t make you grow smaller or feel shame.

By the same token, longing, loneliness, or despair over ever loving again can be signs that a healthy part of you still wants a deep, intimate connection with a healthier partner despite what happened with a narcissist.

Grieving means feeling and accepting all emotions tied to loss. Over time, the relationship will shrink from view in your emotional rearview mirror.






4. Discernment

The more clearly you see what was unhealthy in the relationship, the more discerning you can be going forward.

To be more discerning: Identify red flags and green lights.

Refer back to your list from step two of what you disliked about your ex. This is your “red flag” list.

Your red flag list contains the seeds for a “green light” list of what you want in a relationship. Green lights are generally the opposite of red flags.

For example, if your narcissistic ex was a poor listener, you might want someone who values what you say and respects your feelings. Or if a narcissistic ex was self-absorbed, you may want someone who will give equal time to your needs.

Keep these lists handy when you’re ready to begin dating or getting to know someone new. Pay attention to what people do rather than what they say (or what you hope they are saying).

Perhaps share your lists and assessments with a trusted friend when you begin dating someone. Your lists can center you, particularly when a new romance can make you susceptible to magical thinking or overlooking warning signs.

5. Healing and Revitalization

The final part of healing is shifting your attention away from your partner and past relationship and toward yourself and your future.

Ask yourself: How did the relationship damage your trust in others or yourself? How might the relationship have soured your assumptions about love or romantic partners? Did your view of yourself change?

Reality-test pessimistic assumptions about love and relationships. Replace counterproductive assumptions with healthier views.

To heal: Envision who you want to be.

Create a vision for who you want to be in a romantic relationship. Include your goals, longings, and needs. Include healthy boundaries, discernment, and self-respect. Focus on the future you want rather than the past you had.

To deal with narcissists and their manipulation tactics, you can:

  • Set healthy boundaries: When interacting with a narcissist, setting healthy boundaries can be essential to making sure that you have the strength and emotional space to reduce the opportunities for them to manipulate you.

  • Avoid unnecessary communication: Try to avoid contact with a narcissist when possible. Keep your communication concise and factual, and avoid emotional or personal topics.

  • Choose your battles: Pick and choose what to react to. Don't let the narcissist bait you into arguments or drama. Focus on your own goals and priorities, and don't let the narcissist distract you from them.

  • Document everything: If you have to deal with a narcissist in a professional or legal context, make sure to document everything they say or do. This can help you protect yourself from their lies, gaslighting, or false accusations.

  • Build a support system: Seek out people who understand your situation and can offer you emotional support, validation, and advice. Don't isolate yourself or let the narcissist make you feel alone or unworthy.






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